On the 10th of December 2006, Roma walked into the derby as the absolute favourites to win it. They were four points away from Inter and they were coming off a string of victories. Lazio were falling to pieces; according to La Repubblica, it would have taken ‘a miracle’ by Delio Rossi (then Coaching the aquiline side) for Lazio to win. The final result: 3-0 for Lazio, virtually ending Roma’s title challenge.
Going into this derby, the situation is not too dissimilar. Most likely there are several people who still remember that December of steel, since no-one – within the team or outside of it – speaks in recognizably optimistic tones. The table-leader meets a relegation contender, yet not a voice from the capital can be heard proclaiming that the team on top is going to win it. It is a matter of prudence, since Roma have only just reached the top of the table – they hold it by a flimsy single point – and they know that that which is conquered with great hardship can be lost with equally great ease. It is also, however, a recognition of the fact that when this derby comes along, there is no such thing as a realistic prediction. Bleak December 2006 was the latest reminder. Claudio Ranieri is working to make sure that April 2010 does not become the next.
Most likely the Coach will opt for the trident, as he has done over the last five matches (three forwards, fifteen points). Some sources in the press contend that he will go for a 4-4-2, or a 4-2-3-1 with only two forwards (and Simone Perrotta and Rodrigo Taddei both on the trequarti), but this seems unlikely. His persistence with the ‘three strikers’ formula is such that the only realistic doubts surround the ballotage between Luca Toni and Jérémy Menez. In a match as rough and tense as the Roman derby, the choice of physicality and experience will almost certainly win the favour, so if trident it is, then it’s a trident with Toni.
Both teams play with five midfielders, but these are midfielders with very atypical roles. Totti will play as the trequartista, as will Stefano Mauri. This means that both players will have to contribute to the offence and midfield of the game, and their measure of defensive coverage will have important effects on the overall balance of the teams. The side whose trequartista succeeds in becoming the gravitational fulcrum of the game will be holding the reins, able to choose when and how to attack and keeping the adversary midfield in check. Totti has far more class and technique than Mauri, but the latter has greater stamina and speed. The duel is more open than it seems. Other midfielders have similar roles. Mirko Vucinic will be pivotal in both offence and defence as well, and Tommaso Rocchi – technically a striker – will be running back to cover on David Pizarro – Lazio Coach Edy Reja is well aware of the spectacular form of the Chilean midfielder, and he is guaranteed to take measures against him.
Tactically speaking, the game is incredibly delicate, and liable to sudden and unpredictable changes in shape and state over the first and second half. Even were this not the derby, even were the table not what it is, the match would be remarkable for its erratic nature. If we add the enormous psychological dimension of the game, Inter’s Friday victory over Juventus will hardly have gone unnoticed by Roma, it becomes an authentic leap into the dark. Edy Reja has coached Napoli in the past, and with them he sank Inter, Milan and Juventus. He is no beginner and he will know how to put the ring in his glove. Roma fans may instead draw some hope from the Lazio defence, which – at the best of times – is not watertight, but which could really suffer on Sunday. It is, after all, a three-man defence, and having to cope with a three-man offence (one which, for its own part, is extremely classy) may prove too much for them to handle, assuming of course that Roma win enough midfield domination to bring the ball forward. Expect a lot of fouls, when the golden triangle offends. And expect Toni to start for exactly that reason – he will have the task of drawing away one or even two men from that line, bearing the fouls and taking the beating, to pry open the line for Vucinic and Totti to find space. This, of course, will draw even more fouls in turn.
It is going to be a dirty match. But then, the sport of football is a dirty sport. Those who like it clean should stay out of the sewers, those who like it cool should stay out of the kitchen, and anybody who likes their sports sugar-coated or decaffeinated or air-conditioned should stay out of the Roma/Lazio derby. In the words of a prophetic spirit, the wrath of Rome lies sleeping. It was hidden a hundred years before we came and only we have the power to wake it. The Curva Sud, the Curva Nord aren’t half-full. Hear me. You carry a conflict of a madman’s making onto your own land. You’ll wake more than the dogs.